BY: SARAH GOLD ANZLOVAR, MS, RDN, LDN
There are plenty of reasons to eat a diet rich in plants—from weight management to warding off chronic disease—but did you know that plant-rich diets also promote a healthy digestive system?
The gut microbiome and health
The human body hosts as many bacteria cells as it does human cells. These microorganisms cluster together throughout the body; some are on the surface of your skin, some are within the layers of your skin, others live in your mouth, and on and on. The largest group of bacteria live in your large intestine, a.k.a. your gut.
The bacteria in your gut, called microbiota, play a helpful role in maintaining your health. In a healthy person, they live in symbiosis with other cells in the gut, keeping our digestive system regular, aiding the immune system, and offering many other health benefits.
When bacteria are off balance a condition known as dysbiosis may develop. Dysbiosis has been linked to inflammation, autoimmune disorders, and eczema. Emerging research has even connected the gut microbiome to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and even brain health. So, it’s safe to say healthy gut is very important for your overall health.
Diet and the microbiota
Not surprisingly, what you eat affects the health of your microbiota. Vegan and vegetarian diets have been linked to more diverse gut microbiota, a sign of health. You don’t need to fear eating meat and fish though, even flexitarian and omnivores’ guts will reap the benefits of eating more plants. Ultimately, the best bet is to focus on consuming whole foods and primarily plants, and avoiding processed foods which have been linked to negative changes in gut bacteria.
Help your microbiota flourish with plants
Just like you need food to fuel your body, the good bacteria in your gut needs “fuel” to work effectively, too. And, there’s nothing bacteria likes more as a fuel source than the prebiotic fiber found in plants. When prebiotic fiber reaches the colon, it’s fermented by the microbiota, providing them with the essential energy they need to flourish. Bananas, sun chokes, oats, asparagus, onions, garlic, apples, and sweet potatoes are some of the best sources of prebiotics, but all plant foods offer some.
Probiotics help maintain a healthy microbiota
Antibiotics, stress, environmental factors, and poor diet can all contribute to a decrease in the good bacteria in your gut. But you can replenish the bacteria by paying attention to your diet. In addition to feeding the bacteria with prebiotic-rich plants, add fermented foods to your meal to help replenish what’s been lost. Try foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh, and miso to help build a healthy gut.
Add some cruciferous crunch
Cruciferous vegetables have long been linked to digestive health, and recent research connects them to a positive change in the gut microbiota. Aim to eat a variety of cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, kale, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage on a regular basis.
Make changes slowly
If any of these foods are new to you, add them to your diet slowly to limit any unpleasant (read: gassy) side effects. For those with IBS or other digestive disorders, additional fiber, found in the recommended foods, may be beneficial but dose tolerance varies, so work with a registered dietitian to help you find what works best for you.
Sarah holds a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and Marketing from The George Washington University and a Master of Science in Nutrition Communication from Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. She completed her Dietetic Internship at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a Harvard University teaching hospital in Boston, MA.
When not in the kitchen, you can find Sarah seeking out the latest restaurant opening, teaching indoor cycling, running, training for triathlons, or hiking or skiing with her husband and golden retriever pup.